I’m finding a whole bunch of “not the usual Old West or Regency England or Victorian England setting” and this one is no different. It starts around 1742 in England- there are several background historical that inform the action and the author does a really good job of tying these in to the reality and the motivation of the characters.
First is the house of Hanover and the succession crisis that brought the Germans to the throne of England. (Thumbnail: Queen Anne didn’t have a living male heir, and Parliament passed the Act of Settlement of 1701 that settled the throne on the Electress of Hanover, who was a granddaughter of James I, which passed to her son George I by the time Anne died.) France is squabbling with Austria (as you do) and the King sends the Army to “help” (but is really just trying to protect the Hanoverian holdings).
Consequently, the House of Stuart and the Jacobean uprising of 1715 and 1745 come in to play, too. There are a number of people who quietly support Bonnie Prince Charles, or at least think the Stuarts are at least more English than the German House of Hanover.
So that’s the political context. The social context surrounds horse racing. (PONIES) At this point, the English have developed a strong racing tradition (Sport of Kings, and all that). If you’ve ever read King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry (and WHY HAVE YOU NOT) that gives the background to one of the three foundation stallions and the basic gist behind some of the breeding issues. (Horse-breeding issues. There are people-breeding issues, too, but we will get to that.) Also it’s really good.
So our hero is Robert Devington, who starts out his journey as a groom in Sir Garfield L’s stud. Our heroine, Charlotte, is Sir Garfield’s niece and ward. She comes into the family after her parents died (as parents in these stories are wont to do), and Sir Garfield is one of those annoying, absent, snotty guardians (as guardians in these stories are wont to do). His head groom sees a kindred spirit in Charlotte, and teaches her how to ride- eventually letting her help train the babies. She loves it, and is fearless, and has a good rapport with the horses, especially a broodmare named Amoret (as girls in these stories are wont to do).
Our story opens with a race- Sir Garfield’s son is supposed to ride, but is detained by a broken carriage. As the jockeys for this race are only supposed to be gentlemen, Robert shouldn’t be able to ride, but he bluffs his way in by saying he’s engaged to Charlotte. The race officials buy his story, he wins, Sir Garfield is happy to have made a SHITTON of money by selling the horse to the King of France, and Robert tries to convince Sir Garfield to make the fake engagement a real one (Charlotte is totally down with this plan).
Sir Garfield started off as a tradesman, and bought his way into a baronetcy, and in the way of nouveau riche, NOT willing to marry his ward off to a groom. His social mobility trajectory is up, not down. So Robert joins the Horse Guards to make his fortune (as stableboys in his position are wont to do).
He does fine, and ends up in possession of a warhorse he names Mars- the stallion is irredeemable, except Robert uses a bit of natural horsemanship (this was the point I knew the author really researched, and was a horse person, because no one but a horse person would give a crap about what this means) to convince Mars that life doesn’t blow when you have a job to do. Robert makes it back from the wars a captain. He’s hoping that being a captain would convince Sir Garfield that he’s an acceptable suitor for Charlotte.
It doesn’t work of course. An officer in the army still doesn’t meet Garfield’s definiton of upward mobility. Instead, he’s looking for landed peers that need money for Charlotte and his daughter, Beatrix.
Robert has met his heterosexual life-partner in the wars- Phillip Drake, the second son of the Earl of Hastings. The Earl of Hastings is dying, and his oldest son and heir, Edmund, is unmarried and not showing a great deal of interest in doing so. Also he is a tool. The old Earl tells his son and heir that hes a tool, and the terms of the will have been changed- if he doesn’t produce an heir within a year of the Earl’s death, Edmund will lose the title, and it’ll all pass to Phillip.
So Robert and Phillip head to the home of Sir Garfield, and Robert and Charlotte are thrilled to see each other other, and Phillip and Beatrix start off a kind of annoying round of Slap Slap Kiss (she decides she needs to get revenge on him for some imagined slight, and it ends with her going to his room in her nightie, and, well, fade to black). Naturally, because she can’t get away with anything, she gets pregnant and blackmails daddy into letting her marry Phillip.
Sir Garfield has decided that Edmund will do for a husband for Charlotte, who decides to run away to Gretna Green with Robert. Phillip agrees to cover for them, and a plot is hatched to keep everyone from knowing that the two crazy kids ran off. The plot fails, Phillip is sent after them, which he reluctantly agrees to. If he doesn’t bring Charlotte back, he doesn’t get to marry Beatrix.
So Charlotte and Robert have about 12 hours lead time to get 300 some odd miles, on horseback, from London to Gretna Green. (And finally, after years of reading romances, I finally looked up why Gretna Green was the go-to place for runaway marriages. Answer (in case anyone is as dumb as I am): it’s right over the border to Scotland, and Scots law on marriage allowed a woman of 12 and a boy of 14 to marry without parental consent, rather than 21, which was the age in England. So now you know.)
They make it only about halfway before Phillip catches up with them, and the shit really hits the fan. Robert and Charlotte both think Phillip has totally betrayed them, Phillip is just trying to do his best, there’s a duel (of course), and Robert loses, badly. But they’re both officers in the Army, and dueling is against the rules, especially in a time of war. So off to the stockade they go.
Edmund has discovered that his bride-to-be has run off, which pisses him off no end, and he also discovers that his brother’s fiancée is pregnant. So he declares Beatrix to be an acceptable substitute, and marries her. Phillip is given Charlotte to marry (who hates this idea with flames on the side of her face), and Robert is transported to the Colonies (Charlotte is told he is hanged for his crime of dueling).
Now, the best description of story structure I’ve ever heard was Cleolinda on a Made of Fail podcast, quoting who she thinks may have Billy Wilder that, in Act One, you put your hero in a tree, Act Two, you set the tree on fire and in Act Three, you get them out of the tree.
Our heroes are in a lot of trees, and they are well and truly on fire. This is where Lee kind of falls down. The last third of the book is really rushed- you have a lot of stuff happening off-stage, and plot points I expected the play into the resolution are dismissed with barely a mention. By the end, it really felt like she said, “uhhhhh, yeah, you’re all out of trees, enjoy your lives!”
It’s a romance, and you expect a HEA, and I don’t think it’s spoiling to say you get one ….kind of… but it’s contrived. During the book club discussion of Unveiled, I said that I had no idea how Milan was going to resolve the conflict, and it was exciting. In Highest Stakes, I had no idea how the conflict was going to be resolved, and it was kind of a mess. I feel like the end was either a “oh crap, this is getting to be kind of long, I better end it!” or “oh crap! My deadline is approaching, I better end it!” We get through 8 years and a lot of stuff in maybe 50 pages.
The main conflict could have been resolved if people actually listened to each other. I know Robert is angry about all the shit that keeps landing on his head, and justifiably so, but still. Even if he’d let Charlotte explain WHY she had to marry Phillip (that or turned out on the street with no money, no protection, no nothing), maybe a little bit of heartache could have been avoided. But no. Lee ups the ante by having no one listen to anything anyone else is saying.
I am pretty certain this is a first novel, and there’s a little bit of first-novel-itis that I feel very confident she can overcome. A little bit more telling than showing, some awkward phrasing, and a fairly characture-ish villain (violent and gay- unfortunate implications, sadly).
But there’s a lot more that I really liked about this than I disliked. First, Lee does her homework. She set up the historical context really well, and the concern of the country over the lack of male heir of Queen Anne is reflected by Edmund’s desire to get a male heir. I liked how she drew the parallels between the concerns, and the conflict between Hanovers and Stuarts is sort of reflected in the conflict between Phillip and Edmund and who gets to be the Earl of Hastings.
Also, she does a few of the best infodumps I’ve ever read. When Charlotte is introduced to the horse world, the head groom at her uncle’s stud explains the differences on conformation and why that’s important in breeding and in what job a horse is given. Cart horses have a certain build, race horses have another. I know all of this, and I wasn’t bored by it, and I feel like someone who doesn’t know all this would follow it. It’s an adult explaining to a child, so it isn’t overly technical, and the dialogue is realistic. There’s a few other infodumps that explain the history of racing and the main stallions of the English turf and the theories of breeding race horses- again, well done. She’s a horse person. She can’t not be.
All in all, I did enjoy this book very much and really hope to see more from Lee. (ETA: According to Goodreads, she’s got a few more books coming down the pipe in the same era. YAY!) The issues will, I expect and hope, resolve themselves with more writing, and I love seeing someone who can research and apply that research well. (Seriously, her bibliography is pages long- all good stuff. I love it when authors include their sources. LOVE IT.)